Atheism, the afterlife and an illustrated interview with Maurice Sendak

Before his death last year, children’s author Maurice Sendak gave a raw, emotional interview to NPR’s Terry Gross. In it, he discussed the joy he felt in the face of death, his enduring atheism and his seemingly paradoxical belief that he will be reunited with loved ones after he’s gone.

Upon hearing the interview, Christoph Niemann created an illustrated version that the New York Times published last month, and we’ve shared below.

Sendak has long been a beloved mystery to me. It’s the reason I wanted to be sure Think Christian published a piece about his work upon the news of his passing (Why Maurice Sendak should be next to your kids’ story Bible.) As a child, his books mesmerized me with their dangerous weirdness, and as an adult I’ve been equally drawn to the mixture of cantankerousness and generosity that seemed to define the man.

Sendak remains a mystery in so many ways. Yet what does this candid interview reveal to you?


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Thanks for sharing this, Josh. So beautiful. I love that even though Sendak continued to profess his atheism, he approached death with humility and love and expectancy. All the things that seem to indeed acknowledge a Creator of this world he was in love with.

Love this. I’m fascinated by people who hold one thing true in their heads - there is no afterlife - with what they feel MUST be true in their hearts - I’ll see my brother again.

It reminds me of the Death Cab song “I’ll follow you into the dark.” It’s logically ridiculous - we’ll die and nothing will happen but at least we’ll be together in the nothingness. But it’s sadly beautiful in its own way too.

Watching this interview (it’s beautiful, Josh - thanks for sharing it!), I found myself wondering why we thought atheism and materialism went hand in hand and whether this was a good thing. By materialism I mean the idea that we are all just collections of physical stuff, so that when that physical body stops living we stop living along with it. While our body will be reintegrated into the cosmos through decomposition, it will no longer be us - so no afterlife. Most atheists I know are materialists, but I don’t think the two have to go hand in hand. Listening to this interview, I was actually reminded of a Star Trek: Voyager episode, Emanations, that tries to square a culture’s belief about an afterlife with some physical phenomena suggesting those beliefs had to be false. (It ended up being more accommodating of an afterlife than you’d expect from the Star Trek ‘verse.) The bottom line was, what we know about death and any life after death is far outweighed by the things that remain a mystery.

As a Christian I was raised to believe if you died without “accepting Christ,” you were hell-bound. In the abstract I believe that. But when faced with folks like Mr. Sendal—an atheist who was clearly striving to understand something speaking deep within him—it’s hard to hold on to that certainty. I don’t know, and I don’t want to speak for him now that he can’t speak for himself any longer. But watching this interview I found myself hopeful that God would see his seeking spirit and have mercy on him, even if he rejected the label of Christianity. This man clearly had a zeal for life’s mysteries that seems to mirror my own, even though we disagree on the topic of whether God exists.

Very interesting. Thanks for this Josh. A lot of times the titles we place on people somehow dehumanize who they are, but I think despite us disagreeing over fundamental things about life, it’s very important to recognize the humanity we all have. This helped bring it to light.

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